Chatting with Maria McRobbie in the boardroom of one of Aberdeen’s leading office fit-out companies, it is hard to believe that blinking was once her only method of communication.
In a quiet, calm and matter-of-fact way Maria explains that eight years ago, she went to bed at her Bridge of Don home with flu-like symptoms and was later found unconscious and developing respiratory failure. She was rushed to intensive care, put on life support and fitted with a tracheotomy to allow her to breath. The diagnosis was encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain caused by an infection or the immune system attacking the brain tissue.
For two months, Maria remained in a coma and when she eventually woke she found herself completely paralysed and unable to communicate with the outside world. After finally being able to catch the attention of nursing staff and let them know she was awake, Maria learned to blink once for yes and twice for no. With progress she was able to move two fingers on her hand.
But a quiet determination saw her take steady steps on the road to recovery and last year saw a milestone achievement when Maria returned to the workplace thanks to Bridge of Don-based ASM and Momentum Pathways brain injury vocational centre at North Silver Street, Aberdeen.
The charity – which is part of Momentum Scotland – has been operating a project to help people recovering from brain injuries for the past 15 years and developing work placements within local businesses is a key element of what they do. Companies are initially asked for a six-week commitment at the end of which a formal review process takes place. After that, companies and individuals take things at their own pace but always with the help and support of Momentum Pathways.
ASM is headed by husband and wife Frank and Isobel Maughan and employs 40 people. The company is principally involved in the commercial property sector, specialising in facilities management support services and office design and fit-out. With a turnover of £4 million, recent clients have included major players such as Exxon Mobil, Total E&P UK Ltd, Wild Well Control Inc, and Enquest.
ASM had impressed the family of an employee with the effort, attention and encouragement given during a modern apprenticeship and that family recommended that Momentum Pathways contact the company as a possible work placement venue. ASM were approached initially to offer a 12-week block work placement at the end of 2009 and, such was the success of the venture for all concerned that Maria recently returned to the company for a second period of time.
Isobel Maughan said: “We wanted to make sure it was the best experience we could offer and, for us, the admin team had to be involved so Maria works very closely with Alison Sansbury our office supervisor.
“We have occasionally had some less than favourable experiences of other kinds of work placements in the past so we were cautious, but Momentum Pathways’ have gone about things in a different way because they have personal knowledge of both the person on placement and the company, so the match was better right from the word go.
“Also, Maria came to us with some IT training which Momentum Pathways had provided so we hit the ground running and were able to integrate Maria into the team really well.”
“The first block was a learning process for everyone and a lot of time was spent helping Maria get to know our computer and other systems. Now she has completed updating the office handbook which is a vital part of our HR and employee support.”
Frank Maughan continued: “We are really pleased to be doing something to help. We feel it is very important to be part of the community we work in so we are especially pleased that we are working with someone from within our local area. Our ethos is that people are our business and this work placement project is an extension of that.
“It is also the case that the more you put in, the more you get out and it is important for a company to understand what is needed by the organisation and the individual and what outcomes everyone is looking for. I think the person on placement needs to have the right attitude, as Maria does, and the company needs to nurture the person and make them feel included, with time made available and a definite project of work for them to work on or be part of.”
And the benefits have been reciprocal, as Maria added: “For me, this has been a really important step back into the real world,” she said. “I was very nervous at first as it really is like your first day in a new job but everyone at ASM has been really helpful.
“The work side of things is very useful as I always worked before I was ill, but the benefits extend far beyond that into personal circumstances too in things such as having a sense of purpose, learning new things and lifting confidence in meeting people. This work placement has been an important part of my ongoing recovery.”
For further information on Momentum Pathways, visit www.momentumscotland.org or call (01224) 625580.
To find out more about ASM, visit www.asm.co.uk or call (01224) 826100.